Golan Yaron Kaminsky
The Israeli flag on display on the Golan Heights. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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James and Shay Clapper are not related, as far as can be established. James Clapper, a retired lieutenant general, is currently the director of U.S. National Intelligence. Shay Clapper, a lieutenant colonel, is commander of the 51st battalion of the Golani Brigade. When he travels to Washington, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sometimes meets with General Clapper. Two weeks ago, during a military exercise in the Golan, Barak spoke briefly to Lt. Col. Clapper. The exercise involved simulating events in a war with Syria: The Syrians attack, Israeli forces repel them, and the Northern Command launches a counter-attack. U.S. President Barack Obama expects General Clapper to tell him when this might happen, so that diplomatic intervention would spare Israel the need to send Lt. Col. Clapper to conduct these exercises in a real-life situation.

Those opposed to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for peace have been too quick to rejoice over the downfall of the regime in Damascus. The political turmoil in Syria will not spare Israel the need to embark on a land-for-peace deal. It might delay it, but it will also increase the probability of U.S. pressure to carry it out. Washington never recognized Israel's de-facto annexation of the Golan. It is quite likely that had the decision to impose Israeli rule on the Golan been made today rather than 30 years ago, under Obama rather than Reagan, Israel would have paid a heavy price for this opportunistic move, and especially for forcing the Syrian Druze of the Golan to assume Israeli citizenship. At the time, Reagan merely canceled a strategic cooperation agreement with Begin. The full payment was postponed, not canceled.

Clapper has appeared before committees in the Senate and House of Representative over the past month to brief them on the annual assessments of the intelligence community. Accompanying him was his Pentagon counterpart, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA ) chief Ronald Burgess. Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa were described by them as a sort of epidemic of "contagious popular uprisings." The well-known excuse for mistakes in previous assessments was whipped out: Intelligence officials had indeed analyzed the instability in the region and the fragility of the regimes in question but were unable to locate the detonators that would bring the building down. It was economic uncertainty, demographic change and regime intransigence that fueled recent events.

In the Israeli context, Clapper and Burgess warned, Hamas and Hezbollah are applying the lessons learned from the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, and although neither is interested in escalation, escalation could result from a hasty response to an incident or provocation. They believe Hamas is preoccupied with internal Palestinian affairs, that it continues to rebuild and rearm in the aftermath of Cast Lead, and that it prefers to avoid provocations that could spark a bigger confrontation with Israel. Another round of Cast Lead is likely in "two-three years," U.S. intelligence believes - meaning not in "two-three weeks." An increase in the supply of Iranian weapons and know-how to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad could erode Israel's traditional military advantage and its deterrence capabilities, sparking war.

On the Lebanese front, considering the strengthening of both sides over the past four years, Washington believes that in the next confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, a larger Israeli ground force will go in earlier and deeper into Lebanon than it did in the summer of 2006.

Syria is also busy applying lessons from 2006. Its army, American intelligence believes, is still inferior to the IDF, but it continues upgrading the missiles, rockets, anti-tank and ground-to-air weapons at its disposal. Special efforts have been made to develop small infantry units armed with anti-tank weapons. In the context of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah strategic partnership, Syria sees Hezbollah as a branch of its defense against Israel. This assessment contains a great temptation for Washington - to court the rejuvenating Syria, extricate it from its alliance with Iran, and pull it over to the West, using economic and maybe military incentives. If the Assad family, which has been more preoccupied with preserving its regime than with retrieving the Golan, disappears from the scene, then so will those factors inhibiting progress in the peace process. And so, contrary to popular opinion, the overthrow of Assad by a popular movement, rather than a palace coup, may, in fact, speed up the bargaining over a peace-for-land deal.